Why do sustainable transport innovations flourish in some places and not in others?

Why do sustainable transport innovations flourish in some places and not in others?

Mike Hodson and Andrew McMeekin

The current organisation of transport systems in the UK, as in many other Western countries, is widely seen to be unsustainable. According to the Committee on Climate Change [this issue: Viewpoint Hudson], CO2 emissions from domestic transport accounted for around 25% of total UK CO2 emissions in 2013. What, then, would a more sustainable mobility system look like in the future? Many individual solutions have been touted as plausible, with countless roadmaps for national policy-makers assessing the costs and benefits of each potential innovation, especially electric vehicles.   We take a different view, one that envisages multiple interacting innovations leading to a gradual reconfiguration of mobility. By way of illustration, such a future could have the following ingredients:

  • cars with alternative power sources (battery-electric vehicles, biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells), perhaps even self-driving in the longer future
  • new fuel or charging infra-structures
  • congestion charges in urban settings and tolls for motorways
  • reduced car use, because of high oil prices, high carbon taxes, congestion charges and parking tariffs
  • changes in vehicle ownership (as this becomes more expensive) towards car sharing, car-rental and car-pooling schemes
  • modal shift towards trains, trams, buses and cycling, enhanced by schemes for modal integration
  • reduction in the need to travel as more people work from home or shop through the internet.

Of course, it is highly uncertain whether the future of UK mobility will resemble this particular list, or the extent to which these innovations might perform against sustainability challenges such as climate change. But, reflecting on this reconfigurational set of possibilities draws attention to two important issues that will underpin any transition to more sustainable mobility systems.

First, it becomes clear that a sustainable mobility transition involves much more than innovations in transport technology and existing transport companies. A shift to electric vehicles would have significant implications for the electricity system; an increase in the use of biofuels would have major implications for agriculture. The potential for information and communication technologies (ICT) for more intelligent transport systems brings major ICT companies into the mobility system. The potential for reductions in the need to travel, or distances travelled extends into the ways that work and shopping are organised, and to opportunities for urban planners to design more compact cities.

So, when our analytical gaze is allowed to ‘zoom out’, we can envisage a reconfiguring mobility system creating ripple effects across a wide range of different economic and social domains. But, the second important issue emerges when we allow our analytical gaze to ‘zoom in’, this time in terms of specific places within national boundaries. What we find is that sustainable transport innovations appear to flourish in some places and not in others. The ingredients of a reconfigured mobility system such as that which we introduced above will seem a far off dream to most areas of the UK, but, not so much so in London, as the following examples show:

Car sharing clubs
Since the 1990s the novel reservation, accounting systems and on-board computers for tracking and billing journeys have been part of the ongoing development of car clubs. These technological innovations have enabled new forms of service delivery. Car club membership in the UK rose from 32,000 in 2007 to almost 160,000, with around 3,000 vehicles, in December 2013, of which about 75% were in London.

Urban bicycle sharing schemes
Contemporary urban bicycle sharing schemes bring together bicycle design, docking station technology, and locking systems with smartcard technology, electronic payment systems and self-service bicycle stations that link with a central computer and technology to monitor the location of bicycles in the system. Websites also offer real-time data on the availability of bikes at particular stations. Globally, there has been significant growth in the number of urban bicycle-sharing schemes since 2000, and particularly since 2007. In 2000, there were five schemes, in five countries, amounting to 4,000 bikes in total. By 2013 it was estimated that the fleet had reached 500,000 in 500 cities in 49 countries. In Greater London, the UK’s largest scheme commenced operation in 2010. This is a large scheme by international standards. There were around 8,000 bikes and 500 docking stations by 2014 with plans for further expansion. But, in the UK, outside London, there has been very little adoption.

Congestion charging
London is the only UK city to have introduced a congestion-charging scheme. Championed by London mayor, Ken Livingstone, it was introduced in 2003. There was no public vote for the scheme, which meant it didn’t face the same fate as a similar initiative in Manchester, which had no prominent political champion and where a referendum rejected the proposals. London’s congestion charge generates a sizable income, much of which is re-invested in the city’s mobility system, with improvements to buses and the development of dedicated cycle lanes. London’s Electric Vehicle Delivery Plan has subsequently modified the scheme to incentivise the uptake of electric vehicles, which are not required to pay the charge.

Smartcard ticketing
Smartcards are credit-card sized cards that use a microchip to store, process and write data. Smartcard ticketing allows a passenger to make journeys utilising more than one mode of public transport, and are consequently promoted as an innovation that could stimulate a shift towards public transport modes. A ticket may also be utilised across multiple operators, usually within a defined travel area. Smartcards for public transport grew from less than 50,000 smartcards across the UK in the 1990s to over 3.7 billion public transport journeys made by smartcard in 2013, although there is a London-centric bias that accounts for all but 700 million of these journeys. This is largely because, since 2003, the Oyster card has become the ‘dominant fare medium’ in London with over 80% of all public transport journeys using it.

As these examples show, London appears to be a beacon for the adoption of sustainable transport innovations compared to the rest of the UK. If three-quarters of cars in car-sharing clubs, the only UK urban cycling scheme of significant scale, the only congestion charging scheme, and the overwhelming majority of smartcard journeys are in London, this suggests that innovations flourish in particular places. While there are some specific cases of innovation development in other places lessons can be learned from the dominance of London in promoting transport innovation:

  1. In contrast to many towns and cities in the UK, Greater London’s transport systems remain relatively well integrated. For example, Greater London avoided the deregulation of buses in the 1980s that occurred in other UK towns and cities, and the fragmentation that followed. This continued integration, providing the pre-conditions for the application of innovations such as smartcard ticketing in ways which remain a challenge in other UK cities.
  1. Greater London has more well-established governance and institutional structures than other cities and towns in the UK. In contrast to transport governance in other UK towns and cities (even those seen as at the forefront of transport governance, such as Greater Manchester), capacity and capability is better coordinated in Greater London.
  1. These two prior issues are important pre-conditions in developing new forms of capacity and capability that are necessary to embed sustainable transport innovations in a place. This is being done through building place-based capacity as forms of mobility experimentation in urban settings.

The critical point is that places matter and that some places are better equipped to respond to the challenges of sustainable transport innovations than are others. The prospects for reconfigured mobility can be considered through the zooming out we explored at the start of this article. But, as we have seen, there is also a need for more specific understandings of where sustainable transport innovations flourish and why this is the case.

It is important to think simultaneously about the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of sustainable transport innovations. This requires bringing a conceptual understanding of sustainable transport-related innovations together with the places within which they flourish or, alternatively, fail to do so. In thinking about places we set out three issues: (1) the importance of understanding the historical and geographical context within which sustainable transport innovations are being promoted; (2) the role of urban governance capacity and capability in promoting sustainable transport innovations; and (3) processes of place-based experimentation. The future of mobility may involve the creation of new and wide-ranging interdependencies across societal domains, which may extend to companies around the globe.  But, at the same time, these developments only become real when they are instantiated in specific places. As it stands, the distinctive historical trajectory of how transport have been governed in London compared to elsewhere, together with the currently unique overarching governance capacity and capabilities of London appear to have been decisive for the stimulation of mobility innovations, when compared with the rest of the UK.


Further Reading
Geels, F.W., McMeekin, A., Mylan, J., Southerton, D. (2015) “A critical appraisal of Sustainable Consumption and Production research: The reformist, revolutionary and reconfiguration positions” Global Environmental Change 34, 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.04.013
Hodson, M., and Marvin, S., (2013) Low Carbon Nation? Earthscan: London.
Hodson, M., Geels, F. and McMeekin, A. 2014. Green niche-innovations in the UK mobility system, Deliverable 2.1 FP7 PATHWAYS project
Hodson, M., Geels, F. and McMeekin, A. 2015. Regime analysis of the UK mobility system, Deliverable 2.2 FP7 PATHWAYS project.
Spurling, N.  and McMeekin, A. 2015. Interventions in practices – Sustainable mobility policies in England, in Strengers, Y. and Maller, C. (eds.) Social Practices, Intervention and Sustainability, Routledge


Mike Hodson is based jointly in the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) and the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIoIR), University of Manchester. Mike has published and presented widely in the area of urban and regional governance and transitions. His developing research interests are at the interface of systemic transitions and territorial transitions and the ways in which relationships between the two are, are not and can be organized and governed. Andrew McMeekin is Research Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute and Professor of Innovation at the Alliance Manchester Business School. Previously, he was deputy director of the ESRC, Defra and Scottish Government funded Sustainable Practices Research Group. Andrew’s current research interests are focused on how societies can be reconfigured to create more sustainable production and consumption systems. This article is based on a comparative EU Framework 7 project, PATHWAYS. The project assesses national transition pathways across electricity, mobility, land-use and agro-food sectors.